Former Big East Basketball rivals UConn and West Virginia face off. What are the keys to this matchup and who has the edge?
TV Schedule: Wednesday December 8, 7:00PM, ESPN2
Location: WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, West Virginia
Records: UConn (8-1), West Virginia (7-1)
KenPom Rankings: UConn (26), West Virginia (48)
The UConn Huskies are heading down to Morgantown to take on former Big East rival West Virginia in the Big East-Big 12 Battle. Historically, UConn has dominated this matchup, owning a 16-6 advantage over the Mountaineers. These two defensive-minded teams last met in November 2014, a game the Huskies lost 78-68.
Of note, WVU coach, Bob Huggins, has 907 career wins. This puts him just 11 wins behind former UConn coach Jim Calhoun (3rd all-time). Huggins has a chance to pass him this season. Can a depleted Huskies team step up to help, at least momentarily, maintain Calhoun’s place on the all-time wins list?
This game will be a rock right between two teams and coaches that pride themselves on the defensive end. Which defense will hold their ground?
After losing two starters, it’s tough to use analytics to look at this matchup. This will be a game of will for the Huskies. The first true road game of the season.
They will be without center Adama Sanogo and guard/wing Tyrese Martin, who are both out with injuries. Sanogo is the second leading scorer on the team averaging 15.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 1.8 bpg. Martin is the team’s leading rebounder (7.7 rpg) and the team’s third-leading scorer averaging 12.9 ppg and shooting nearly 44% from beyond the arc before going down with a wrist injury.
The Huskies are led by guard RJ Cole (16.3 ppg, 4.4 apg). Cole has been asked to do it all lately. That will be a much taller task against WVU. The rest of the team will have to step up on both ends of the floor They answered the call against Grambling State, but with all due respect to the Tigers, this West Virginia team will be quite the step up.
In order for the Huskies to win, I think veterans Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley have to be the guys. A couple early threes off the bench from Polley would go a long way to take the crowd out of this game early. The Coliseum will not be a welcoming arena, especially for an old foe.
West Virginia enters the contest 7-1, their lone loss coming against Marquette. WVU is led by guards Taz Sherman (21 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.9 spg) and Sean McNeil (12 ppg). However, McNeil has been dealing with a lower back issue and it is unclear if he will play yet. The Huskies will have to slow down Sherman. Make the rest of the team beat you.
WVU has no other double-figure scorers. I think this highlights just how important defense is for them as a team. Forward Jalen Bridges has been a solid contributor for the Mountaineers in the frontcourt, chipping in 8.5 ppg and 5 rpg. However, if they are to win this matchup, it will be because of their defense.
UConn has struggled against defensive pressure and with turnovers. West Virginia is a team that thrives on defensive pressure and forcing turnovers. Not ideal for UConn.
In fact, WVU’s defense ranks 2nd nationally in turnover percentage. As a team, they force a turnover on nearly 29% of defensive possessions. This also means that the defense is taking chances and going after the ball. This can perhaps help explain how WVU is allowing opponents to shoot nearly 35% from three, and nearly 52% from inside the arc. If UConn is to win this game, they will have to limit turnovers. RJ Cole, Jalen Gaffney, and perhaps Rahsool Diggins will have to be smart, poised, and tough with the ball.
One other area to watch: rebounding. UConn can help themselves out on the glass, although they are down 2 of their top 3 rebounders so the analytics is a bit murkier for this matchup. The Huskies rank 6th in the country in terms of offensive rebounding percentage and 15th overall in terms of total rebounding rate.
In comparison, WVU ranks just 222nd in total rebounding rate. UConn will need to create second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass, especially if they are losing possession to turnovers. Isaiah Whaley, Andre Jackson, and Akok Akok will have to clean up the boards.
The keys to a win for the Huskies will be limiting turnovers and maximizing second chance opportunities on the glass. The veterans, Cole, Whaley, and Polley, will have to take over early to help take the crowd out of the game. We will learn a lot about the Huskies in this game.